Cochabamba, with its wide streets and western-style restaurants, feels like a city awash in money. Although that’s not the case at all, at least one spot in town does exude wealth and genteel living: the palace of Simon I. Patiño, alternately known as the Tin Baron, or The Andean Rockefeller.
If you’re looking for a cheap and cool place to stay, here are three Bolivian hostels and hostals we can recommend in some of the country’s coolest cities: La Paz, Potosí and Sucre.
Also called the Isla del Pescado thanks to its fish-like profile, the island of Incahuasi is situated smack in the middle of the enormous Salar de Uyuni. We arrived there midway through the first day of our tour. Covered by millennial cacti and composed of coral, the island is a stunning reminder that the salt flats used to be part of a gigantic lake.
At 6am, we were out on Sucre’s streets, desperately searching for a taxi to take us to the station for our bus to Uyuni. But there were no taxis. There wasn’t even any traffic. The streets were dead calm, except for our cursing and complaining. A morning dash to the far-away bus station wasn’t the best way to start this trip.
We expected to have an incredible time in Potosí, and the highest city in the world didn’t disappoint. Potosí has a rich history, still evident in its plentiful churches, but today is awash in poverty. The massive Cerro Rico casts a shadow both literally and figuratively over the city; the deaths of millions of indigenous workers has left a wound in Potosí’s psyche which will never scab over. Here are our final visual impressions of this amazing city.
Henry, the guide for our 3-day hike around Sucre, was originally from Potosí. We told him that we had plans to visit his hometown, and he enthusiastically rattled off a number of recommendations. Churches, neighborhoods, shops… “But no matter what”, he said, suddenly turning serious, “make sure to get a bowl of k’alaphurka”.
We were speaking Spanish, and I’d had a few beers. I could have sworn he said Cara Puta. “Really, Henry? You want me to go into a restaurant and order a steaming hot bowl of “Whore’s Face”?!”
Disillusioned by the horrors of Cerro Rico’s mines and the callous greed of their families, a number of Potosí’s young women renounced the world by entering into the Convent of Santa Teresa. They would never again step outside its walls.
We were pressed for time, and told our guide that we wanted just a quick tour. But the convent’s history was simply too fascinating, and we ended up spending about two hours inside. Santa Teresa was established in 1685, providing a home to a sisterhood of Carmelite nuns. It’s still active today, but its numbers have dwindled significantly, and most of the immense complex is now a museum.
Heralded as Bolivia’s best museum, the Casa de la Moneda offers a fascinating look back at a time when Potosí was the center of the Spanish Empire’s wealth. This mammoth building in the center of the city was the Royal Mint, pressing silver extracted from the Cerro Rico into coins and medallions.
By far the most popular tourist activity in Potosí is a visit to the mines of Cerro Rico. They’re still active, so a tour entails walking past soot-covered miners hard at work in conditions that could be straight out of the 18th century.
We weren’t especially excited about taking a tour, since gawking at people working in such a dangerous profession is more than a bit unseemly. Between accidents and the inevitable lung diseases, it’s still rare for a Potosí miner to reach the age of 50. But we couldn’t skip out on the city’s most famous experience.
Set at 4090 meters (13420 ft) above sea level, Potosí is the highest city in the world and once was its most wealthy, thanks to the silver mines of Cerro Rico. Remnants of Potosí’s glorious past are still visible today, as are the vestiges of the exploitation which made Spain rich beyond measure and resulted in the deaths of millions.